What is occupational therapy?

April is Occupational Therapy Month

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy is defined by the American Occupational Therapy Association as “the therapeutic use of work, self-care, and play activities to increase development and prevent disability. It may include adaptation of tasks or environment to achieve maximum independence and to enhance quality of life.” Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings such as hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, schools, community centers, residential care (home care), universities and private practices.  Therapists work with people of all ages with disabilities or impairments that impact their daily skills and quality of life.

How can an occupational therapist assist a person undergoing treatment for cancer?

Some people who undergo cancer treatment find it difficult to perform self-care tasks, work tasks and leisure activities due to fatigue, pain, weakness and cognitive difficulties.

An occupational therapist will:
Educate and demonstrate the use of energy conservation techniques, including work simplification to help maximize activity.
Use therapeutic exercise to maintain range of motion, mobility and strength.
Educate and demonstrate the use of adaptive equipment to assist with self-care tasks.
Assist with home modifications.
Use cognitive strategies to address memory, attention span, concentration and multitasking difficulties that can be related to “chemo brain.”

What is “chemo brain”?

“Chemo brain” is a common cognitive impairment that can occur during or after chemotherapy treatment and is often described as a “mental fog.” According to the National Institute of Health, 45 percent of people who underwent chemotherapy reported changes in cognitive function.

What are the common symptoms of “chemo brain”?

Common symptoms of chemo brain include:
Decrease in short-term memory.
Difficulty with finding words.
Short attention span.
Difficulty concentrating.
Difficulty with multitasking.

Occupational therapists will help you understand the best strategies to use if you experience “chemo brain.” These include, but are not limited to:
Make lists:  A grocery list; list of the do’s for the day to help keep your day organized.
Use a planner/organizer:  This can help you manage day-to-day activities and appointments.
Wall calendar: This can help with remembering the month/day/year. Put it in a spot where you pass it and follow the calendar daily. This repetition will help you stay oriented to date.
Set an alarm: An alarm can assist with reminders for taking medications and cooking tasks.
Keep your mind active: Activities to help with this are brain games such as “Lumosity,” word searches, and varying types of puzzles, such as crosswords.
Organize your environment: Try to decrease clutter.  Use folders for important information in filing cabinets.
Exercise: Exercise can help to decrease stress, help maximize strength, range of motion, and increase blood flow to joints and body.

What about family education?

It is also very important for family members to be involved in the planning of care and treatment strategies to better facilitate rehabilitative therapies and strategies at home. Early detection of “chemo brain” is a beneficial means to help decrease further decline in cognitive function and help maximize performance of daily tasks.

What’s next: the referral process

If you suspect you are experiencing “chemo brain,” your physician can refer you for an occupational therapy evaluation and further treatment. An occupational therapist will perform an individual evaluation to determine areas of occupation that have been affected as a direct result of cognitive difficulties. Together, your physician and occupational therapist will establish a plan of care and goals for future treatment.

Jessica Bannerman is an occupational therapist at Sharon Hospital. Learn more about the hospital's rehabilitation therapy services.